A fortnight before the 1998 Congressional elections, House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted that Republicans, who had just passed a pork-laden spending bill, would gain from 10 to 40 seats. Instead, they lost three seats, as turnout among conservatives dropped 6 percent from the 1994 mid-term elections.
That cautionary tale, recounted by Stephen Slivinski in his new book, Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government (Nelson Current, 260 pages, $25.99), portends poorly for the GOP as it approaches November's elections.
In his book, Slivinski draws on his experience as director of budget studies at the libertarian Cato Institute to craft a breezy narrative that traces the devolution of the GOP from the small government party of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater to a big government party of farm subsidies, bloated highway bills, federalized education, and a Medicare prescription drug plan.
His tale has all the hallmarks of tragedy, as the great promise of the Reagan and Gingrich Revolutions doesn't become reality, and party leaders become addicted to pork barrel spending and betray fiscal conservative crusaders such as John Kasich and Tom Coburn. Reading the book leaves a proponent of limited government with little hope that spending can ever truly be reined in, let alone serious entitlement reform passed. As Slivinski remarked at a Tuesday book forum held at Cato, many of his friends after reading the book told him "they wanted to put their head in an oven."
In his book, and as he did yesterday, Slivinski counters many of the excuses current Republican leaders make for not curtailing spending. One excuse is that not even Reagan was able to contain spending. But as Slivinski shows, while Reagan left office with the welfare state essentially intact, he still managed to slow the rate of growth of government -- no small feat considering that he had to contend with a Democratic Congress.
Another excuse is that the war on terrorism has made it difficult to contain spending. But neither President Bush nor the Republican Congress sought to offset increased security spending with cuts elsewhere. In the wake of Sept. 11, they even pushed through old- fashioned farm subsidies and packaged them as the Farm Security Act. The result is that even if one were to focus on discretionary spending excluding defense and homeland security, President Bush comes off as a worse spender than Lyndon Johnson.
Given that voters are left to choose between two big government parties, Slivinski sees gridlock as the only way to keep spending even remotely in check. The logic is that if the government is divided, the parties are more likely to try to block each other's agendas, which will tend to produce relatively lower spending. When the Republicans were in control of Congress under President Clinton, they sent back budgets that were lower than he requested, but under President Bush, they have consistently sent back budgets that were higher than requested, and he has not vetoed a single one.
Slivinski also offers some empirical evidence to back up his case for gridlock. Between 1965 and 2006, per capita spending rose an average of 3.4 percent annually when government was united, but only 1.5 percent when it was divided. In view of these numbers, the idea of fostering gridlock may be tempting to conservatives who are disgusted by what the Republican Party has become.
Robert Novak, who also spoke at the Cato forum, said that conservatives agree Republicans deserve to lose in 2006, but they disagree about whether that would be a good thing. Some conservatives have argued that Republicans could always regain power in 2008 if they lose this fall, but Novak cautioned that Democrats failed to recapture Congress in 1996 despite Clinton's resounding re-election.
In 2002 and 2004, the national security issue helped drive conservative voters to the polls even though they felt alienated by the free-spending Republicans. But with two more years of pent-up frustration, that issue may not be enough to motivate conservative voters to pull the lever this November.
One thing is for sure. With an energized base of Democratic voters eager to take back Congress, Republicans cannot afford a drop in turnout similar to 1998. And if they do lose power, they'll have nobody to blame but themselves.
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